Inside Out E-Column: Aligning Employee Engagement with Marketing Communications

Race car drivers and politicians.

I read a great bumper sticker the other day that makes a potent point about the importance of transparency. “Politicians should dress like race car drivers. That way, we’d know who their corporate sponsors are.” Frankly, few people expect politicians to tell the unvarnished truth – Americans would have a collective coronary if they did. But there still may be hope for the business world to be more real, largely because the stakes are high enough to make it worth their while to be more authentic and transparent.

Think you’re fooling people? Think again.
Not so many years ago, the direction that a lot of communication professionals got from senior management could be summed up like this: “Your job is to sanitize the bad news and glamorize the good news.” There may have been a time when employees – and even the public – would take “sanitized and glamorized” corporate mumbo-jumbo as gospel. Not anymore. Anything that smacks of spinning or sketchy denial is immediately suspect. What’s more, employees and customers alike are more bullish about calling companies on their communication crap these days.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that shabby or shady communication is a leading cause of missteps, mistrust and misunderstandings in organizations. For the skeptic, there are legions of research reports and case studies to support that assertion. It all points to the same basic communication premise: If you can’t be open and honest with customers and employees, how can you expect to gain their trust?

The “whys” have it.
Here are other reasons to put transparency at the top of the corporate communication agenda:
  • Problems are solved faster
  • Decisions are made sooner
  • Work is done quicker
  • Costs are controlled better
  • Relationships are more real
  • Performance levels are higher
  • Teams are easier to build and sustain
  • Employees are less skeptical and cynical

The classic slippery slope
One of my pet peeves when it comes to evasive communication is the traditional announcement that thousands of employees are being let go, discretely buried in a massive missive detailing a new direction that will “optimize corporate performance.” A recent internal announcement by one of America’s best known companies is a case in point.

The announcement included oodles and gobs about how smart the company is, but there’s an old adage that “people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” Buried three-fourths of the way into the 1,000-word tome is the notice that 12,500 people will be let go over the next year as part of this strategic business move. The subsequent “caring” comment consisted of one sentence: “These decisions are difficult for the team, and we plan to support departing team members with severance benefits.”

Seriously? That’s it? I’d love to hear the justification for that clipped consolation comment beyond the desire to downplay the impact on people and head off the critics. Part of me likes to think that the guy who wrote it didn’t even bother to consult a communication professional who understands how to strike the right balance between context and compassion. The hopeful side of me wants to believe that other types of communication took place with employees to answer the big questions on their minds, like “Am I going to keep my job?”… “What’s going to happen to me?”… “Where will I go?” – and other similar “WIIFM”s. Somehow, I doubt it.

Put Your Transparency to the Test
So what does transparency look like?

  • Stop trying to sound like a boardroom brainiac. Talk straight and talk first about the things that matter most to employees and customers, not financial analysts.
  • Open the books to employees. Show them the critical numbers that are relevant to business outcomes, and help them understand how their day-to-day work impacts those numbers.
  • Replace one-way information distribution with interactive conversations that foster an open dialogue.
  • Challenge your policies about what information you’re willing to make available to employees so it’s as close as possible to what one Baldrige Award winning company decided on – “no secrets.”
  • Use the “friends and family test” when you’re communicating with employees. Ask yourself if your spouse, your kids, your parents, your grandparents, or your friends and neighbors would understand – and believe – what you’re saying.
  • Kill the jargon, and remember the quote by the renowned business consultant, Warren Bennis, who said, “The use of buzzwords anesthetizes you to the truth.” If your communication doesn’t sound like the kind of conversation you’d have with someone across the table, it’s probably littered with blah-blah corp-speak.

In the end, transparency comes down to a question of credibility. So next time you’re deciding how open to be with key stakeholders, ask yourself this question: Would you rather have people think of management as a race car driver or a politician?

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3 thoughts on “Race car drivers and politicians.”

  1. Les:
    I really enjoyed your blog about transparency in corporate communication. As a communication consultant I’ve worked with dozens of corporations and non-profit organizations. I’ve seen firsthand how lack of transparency can destroy employee engagement. Thanks for your insights!

  2. Excellent article, Les. And yes, you can think both about the bottom line and having a compassionate response to displaced professionals/

  3. Hi, Carol. I just drafted a reply to your comment, and somehow it disappeared on me. So my apologies if you’re getting this response twice. As I mentioned in my first note, I somehow missed your comment from early August. When I read it today, it made me think it would be helpful to all of us who advise leaders about effective communication practices if we had a list of compelling examples that illustrate the destructive impact when organizations fail to be transparent. Would you be interested in working with me to compile that kind of list? Then everyone who contributes to it would be able to use it to make the case for greater transparency with various organizational leaders who make be struggling with it. Give me a call at 314-664-6497 or send me an e-mail at, and let me know what you think of the idea. Thanks again for your comment.

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